The Coulee Region Chill’s mission has not changed, nor has how it intends to accomplish it.
Ownership leaves no doubt that the North American Hockey League team’s purpose, first and foremost, is to provide an opportunity for players to build upon their skills and perhaps open the door to an NCAA Division I hockey scholarship.
Would they love to have Green Island Ice Arena rocking for 30 nights this winter?
Sure would, but that’s not the end-all for this franchise that moved to the area eight years ago from Mason City, Iowa.
Balancing the developmental mission against wins and losses, overall interest, and keeping the significant hockey buzz going in 800-seat Green Island — and in the community — has proven to be a significant challenge.
One that Chill owners Michelle and Kevin Bryant, who are in their sixth year of Chill ownership, fully understand and fully embrace.
So when the Chill play the red-hot Janesville Jets (9-2-0-0) in their 2017-18 home opener at 7 p.m. Saturday, you won’t hear much talk about a 1-5-1-1 start. You won’t hear any talk about a must-win game.
“What we do is very much developmentally driven, and if you look back at one of the reasons why we purchased the Chill to begin with is we didn’t want it to leave the community,” Michelle Bryant said.
“We thought it was a very valuable asset to the community, and even though it was new to the Coulee Region, we felt there was something there.”
There indeed is something there with this year’s team — one of the youngest the Chill have ever fielded — but it will take some time to see it. The 26-member team has a strong local flavor to it, too, as six players are home grown, having either played high school or in the club hockey ranks in the area.
Jacob Dirks (Onalaska), Sam Dabrowski (Onalaska), Tyler Ebner (Onalaska), Bailey Martin (West Salem/Bangor), Marshal Plunkett (West Salem/Bangor) and Kevin Bryant, Michelle and Kevin’s son, who played at different levels in the area and across the state, are part of a young and talented core.
Getting the young players up to speed and adjusting to the physical and mental pace of the Chill — a NAHL Tier 2 team — will take time, said second-year Chill coach Ryan Egan.
“I think all of it takes time. How we play as a group in our own end is going to take time. Being opportunistic when we do create opportunities, and taking advantage of them, is going to take time,” Egan said.
“There have been certain games where we do one, and not the other. The 5-0 win (over the Minnesota Wilderness on Oct. 14) is the first time where those things kind of fell into place for us. The positive thing for us is we still feel like we are getting better every game.”
Matt Hines, a 5-foot-11, 185-pound, 20-year-old defenseman from Minnetonka, Minn., who played high school hockey at Hopkins before entering the junior ranks, has seen significant improvement in the team since the season-opener on Sept. 20.
“The bounce from Triple A or from high school hockey (to the NAHL) is huge, so with a young team we will have our ups and downs,” said Hines, one of the team’s captains.
“The pace of the game, the split second you have to get the puck off your stick at this level compared to the 2 or 3 seconds you have in high school, plus the physical part, it takes time to adjust.
“It is all mental. You need to make split-second decisions in your mind, but your head has to be there first.”
The Chill were outscored 20-12 in their first four games — all losses — but on Oct. 6 in the fifth game of the season, the team started to show promising signs. Coulee Region dropped a 4-3 decision to the Minnesota Magicians, a game that went to a shootout.
Then came a 4-2 loss to Magicians and a 3-1 loss to the Minnesota Wilderness. There was a intensity, a competitive nature, that Egan saw in those games that made him smile.
“We are finding more consistency in our game. We are still creating what I would call our own identity, but we are getting closer to it,” Egan said. “We have some good veteran leadership and if you look at our top line, Andy McGlynn, Billy Duma, and on the back end, (defensemen) Jackson Decker and Marshal Plunkett, those types of players have been around the league.
“Those are the guys we are leaning on early right now to help us not only win hockey games, but to help us bring along the younger guys as well.”